In the summer of 1987, I was a regular at the street races in Tom’s River, N.J. My 350-powered 1969 Chevy Camaro RS convertible was slow compared to the gaggle of Buick Grand Nationals, IROC Camaros, and 5.0-liter Mustangs, but it was fun to hang out and watch the action. We would gather on Saturday nights in the Roy Roger’s parking lot on Route 37, just over the causeway from the cruising action in the beach town of Seaside Heights.
The 5.0 Mustangs were quick, but the Grand Nationals pretty much ran the place. And my buddy Chuck’s 1986 Buick, which had a couple of key modifications, was hard to beat. But I vividly remember the first time a guy showed up in a new Buick GNX. As soon as he pulled into the parking lot, everything stopped. Everything. The emperor had arrived and the big black Buick demanded respect.
Buick called the GNX “the Grand National to end all Grand Nationals,” and it was the king of the street in 1987. The Dodge Demon of its day. It had more power than anything else. Way more. And nothing could beat it in a straight line.
Today, the Demon’s 808-horsepower (840-hp on 100 octane fuel), supercharged Hemi towers over everything else coming out of Detroit. Even the 650-hp Camaro ZL1 and Corvette Z06 bow down to its Nitto drag radials.
Such superiority is rare in the muscle car game, but when it happens, the cars become instant classics. This is a list of machines that had that kind of game in their time. When new, they were the quickest rides coming out of Detroit.
1932 Ford V-8
There’s a reason the first organized drag race, which took place in Goleta, Calif., in 1949, was between two flathead-powered ’32 Fords. The Deuce was essentially the first factory hot rod. It was small, light, affordable, and fast. When Ford debuted the optional flathead V-8, Dodges were powered by four cylinders, and Chevys were running the Stovebolt six. That year the flathead Model 18 was 225 cubic inches and made 65 hp, and it jumped to 75 hp in 1933. It was a monster. By comparison, Ford’s four made 40 hp at the time. The flathead’s potential also launched the hot rodding industry, drag and dry lake racing after the war, as well as NASCAR, and made legends out of men like Edelbrock, Xydius and Hilborn.
1957 Dodge Coronet D-501 Hemi
Overhead-valve Cadillacs, Buicks, Oldsmobiles, and Hemi Chryslers hit in the early 1950s and spelled doom for the Flathead Ford’s domination, and the introduction of the small-block Chevy in 1955 sealed the coffin. But in ’57, it was Dodge’s Red Ram dual-quad Hemi V-8 that ruled with 353 cid and 340 hp. Those specs even dwarfed Chevy’s fuel-injected 283 small-block, famous for making one horsepower per cubic inch. Unfortunately only about 60 D-501 were ever built.
1961 Chevy Impala SS 409
Some say this is first factory muscle car combining big power and image. An enlarged version of the 348-cid engine, which was first introduced in 1958, the 409 with two four-barrel carburetors made 409 hp. That out-punched Ford’s 390 and Dodge’s 413. It was such a sensation, such a killer on the street, the Beach Boys even wrote a song about it. Every kid in America wanted a “four-speed, dual-quad, positraction 409.”
Chrysler’s 426 Max Wedge engine was rated an astronomical 425 hp in 1964. But it was basically a race-only engine built in small numbers for drag racers to win on Sunday at the track. On the street, the king was the 1964 Pontiac GTO with the tri-power option. The 389-cid V-8 with three two-barrel carburetors not only looked awesome when you popped the hood, its 348 hp (it grew to 360 hp in 1965) only had to move a smaller and lighter intermediate body. At the time, Ford’s larger and more-powerful 427 was still powering heavier full-size beasts and couldn’t keep up.
After seven years on the shelf, Chrysler’s big, bad Hemi was back in 1966, and this time it was displacing 426 cid and pumping out 425 hp. It was already a NASCAR legend, winning races since 1964, and now it was back on the street with more cubes and more power than anything else you could buy. This is when the legend of the Hemi really grew roots. That same year the strongest Chevelle Chevy would sell you had a 396 big-block making 375 hp, and Ford’s Fairlane GT was packing a 390 with 335 hp. The Hemi was available in the Dodge Coronet, Plymouth Belvedere, and Satellite.
It’s widely accepted that 1970 was the pinnacle of the first muscle car era and this car stood atop that mountain. LS6 was the option code for the largest and highest horsepower engine you could get in an American car, a 454-cid big-block Chevy with a solid lifter camshaft rated at 450 hp. Today that doesn’t sound like much, but it stood well above Chrysler’s 425-hp Hemi and Ford’s 335-hp 428-cid Cobra Jet. Interestingly, that engine wasn’t offered in the Corvette that year—its top engine option was the 390-hp LS5 454.
By 1973, horsepower was out and gas lines were in, but somebody forgot to tell Pontiac. GM’s engineers built up the brand’s 455-cid engine and created the Super Duty 455, which would be the top engine option in the Trans Am for two years. It was rated 310 hp (now net instead of gross), which towered over every other engine available that year. In fact, the SD455 was the only engine offered with more than 300 hp in 1973. The Corvette’s 454 was rated 275 hp, and the Chevy Camaro had been neutered down to small-block-only, with 245 hp.
A year after Smokey and the Bandit made Pontiac’s black and gold Trans Am an object of desire, Dodge put a built up 360 cubic inch engine in its D100 pickup and dressed it up with chrome stacks inspired by Snowman’s Kenworth. Unlike passenger cars, pickups didn’t yet have catalytic converters, and the truck’s 225 hp made it the quickest accelerating vehicle you could buy in 1978—even smoking the new WS6 Trans Am, which equaled the Dodge’s horsepower, and the 220-hp L82 equipped Corvette.
(Dodge also built a one-year-only, lesser-known, all-black Midnite Express, which shared many of the same components as the Lil’ Red Express. Most were powered by a 440 engine instead of the 360, which makes them highly desirable. Good luck finding one though.)
Buick sold 547 GNXs in 1987. Each was black and powered by a modified version of Buick’s turbocharged 3.8-liter V-6, which had already gained legendary status under the hood of the standard Grand National and Regal T Types. Once Buick added an intercooler to that engine in 1986, nothing could keep up on the street. To create the GNX, Grand Nationals were pulled off the assembly line and brought to ASC/McLaren, where they received modifications to their bodies, interior, suspensions, and engines. The changes pumped up the V-6 from 245 hp to 276 hp, which was significantly more than Ford’s 5.0-liter and GM’s 5.7-liter V-8s. Zero to 60 came in under five seconds. Not even the Corvette could touch the GNX.
It’s true that in 1991 you could buy a ZR-1 Corvette or a Dodge Viper, and both had considerably more horsepower than a GMC Syclone or Typhoon. But those cars were big-buck exotics; they never really played on the street. No, the king of the Roy Roger’s parking lot in 1991 were these turbocharged, all-wheel drive compact trucks. The Syclone was a small pickup, while the Typhoon was a hopped-up version of GMC’s Jimmy SUV. They were powered by an intercooled 4.3-liter V-6 sucking 14 psi of boost and rated at 280 hp. Because they were all-wheel drive, which was rare in performance cars at the time, nothing could run with these beasts on the street. They smoked Camaros, Mustangs, 300ZX Turbos. In a Car and Driver cover story that year, a Syclone easily outran a Ferrari 348ts with a 0-60 mph run of 5.3 seconds.
2007 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500
Thank God for Ford. Ten years ago there was no Camaro or Challenger. If you wanted a V-8 muscle car you bought a Ford Mustang, and in 2007 the supercharged Shelby GT500 was the baddest of the bad. Packing a 500-hp 5.4-liter V-8 it shared with the Ford GT, it was not only the most powerful Mustang ever, it was the most powerful factory muscle car ever. Nothing else even came close. And just as the Pontiac GTO did 43 years earlier, the 2007 GT500 ignited a horsepower war we’re still enjoying today. The Shelby proved there was still a market for such machines, and the Camaro ZL1 and Demons we now love only exist because Ford had the guts to jump first.